Managing a dog or cat's pregnancy can become extremely complicated if you're not aware of the conditions that can arise during and after the gestation period.
The pregnancy timeline for dogs and cats is much shorter than ours—a dog's normal gestation period is 57-65 days, with an average of around 63 days, and a cat's normal gestation period is around 63-67 days—which means that a lot can change in a short span of time. It’s important to keep a close on eye on their condition to make sure both the mother and the babies are okay.
Before discussing the common conditions of pregnancy, it's important to know that the mother’s caloric requirements will increase around 35 days of pregnancy. This means that in general, she will need twice as much food and three times more after giving birth. The best route to make sure that the mother is meeting the caloric and nutritional requirements is to offer her commercial puppy or kitten diets (depending on the species) and follow the package to feed accordingly. These puppy and kitten diets meet higher caloric and nutritional requirements, including calcium, which is extremely important to decrease the risk of one of the common pregnancy conditions below. We do not recommend calcium supplementations nor home cooked diets without direct instructions by a licensed veterinarian.
This is a sudden onset and potentially life-threatening emergency condition during the pregnancy period that results when the body’s calcium level is too low (hypocalcemia). This happens often when the growing fetuses’ calcium needs are increasing as their fetal skeleton is forming and they are tapping into the supply of the mother’s calcium from the body, including the bones.
Eclampsia occurs most commonly in dogs, and rarely in cats. When the mother is not receiving adequate additional calcium from their diet, they are at a higher risk of developing this complication. This commonly occurs during the last few weeks of pregnancy or the first 4 weeks after giving birth. Symptoms to watch out for are increased heart rate, increased breathing, mild muscle tremors, and increased temperature. In a more severe situation, you may see tetany (intermittent muscular spasms), seizures, coma, and death. Immediate medical intervention is essential for survival if eclampsia is suspected.
Dystocia is defined as the “inability to give birth”, and is essentially a condition where the mother is struggling to give birth. The cause of dystocia is varied—sometimes it can be due to complications relating to the mother's physical anatomy or health, or it could be due to the fetus itself; such as oversize of the fetus, fetus position, posture, and other abnormalities. Some otherwise healthy mothers are at higher risk of dystocia—this includes certain breeds such as brachycephalics (smoosh-faced breeds), toy breeds, or those that are over 6 years of age.
It can be hard to know whether your pet is struggling to birth and is in need of medical intervention or is in the normal labor process. Intervention may be needed when any of the following are noted:
Their gestation length has been more than 72 days for dogs and 67 days for cats since breeding/mating
Abdominal contractions have been going on for 2 hours without birth
Failure to begin labor within 24 hours of temperature drop
Mother appearing to be in pain or appears weak
No baby is born within two hours of amniotic fluid delivery
More than 2 hours between each baby
Green, black, or bloody vaginal discharge in absence of labor or a baby
If any or several of these signs are noted, it is strongly advised to take them into an emergency animal hospital so they can address the situation immediately.
Usually after the litter is born, the placenta—the sac surrounding the unborn fetus—is passed shortly afterwards. In dogs and cats, placentas are usually passed within 24-48 hours, so it is not necessarily a cause for concern if they do not pass the same day as the birth of the litter. With that being said, if the placenta/s do not pass after this time frame, then the chance of a systemic infection called sepsis in the mother increases and this is a life-threatening emergency.
Dogs and cats sometimes eat their own placenta, so it can be missed. The only way to truly confirm a retained placenta is through an ultrasound at a veterinary hospital. Some symptoms to watch out for if you suspect a retained placenta are depression, fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, neglect of offspring, and a foul or unpleasant odor of the vaginal discharge.
Mastitis is the inflammation of the mammary glands with or without an infection, typically occurring postpartum (after birth) following abrupt weaning or death of any of the litter. It can also develop during the late stage of pregnancy as well. Severity can depend, and ranges from mild inflammation to a severe infection.
The most common cause of mastitis is a bacterial infection, and the infection usually occurs due to the bacteria ascending into the teat opening and up the teat canal. Trauma or being in a damp or unsanitary environment can certainly predispose them to mastitis as well, and some have a higher risk associated with death of one of the litters.
Mastitis is also more common in dogs than in cats. Signs of mastitis may be heat of the mammary area, pain, redness, swelling, ulceration, firmness, and signs of necrosis where the skin appears to darken or become completely black in color. The mother may be lethargic, feverish, refuse to eat, and potentially be vomiting at a more advanced stage with signs of “shock”—pale gums, change in breathing rate and pattern, and slumped down not wanting to move and barely reactive. Being in “shock” means that the body is starting to shut down, and therefore is a life-threatening emergency and immediate life-saving veterinary intervention is strongly warranted.
Postpartum metritis is an infection of the inside lining of the vagina that usually occurs 3-7 days after giving birth. Its presenting signs are similar to a pyometra (infection of the uterus), however the major difference is that pyometra is not associated with birthing, while postpartum metritis is.
Postpartum metritis can occur from an infection being introduced through the vulva, and the mothers that experienced dystocia at birth are more at risk. This may be because they had to be obstetrically manipulated during delivery or suffered from retained fetal tissue or retained placenta, causing an increased risk of bacterial contamination. You may notice symptoms such as fever, decreased appetite or inappetance, pain around the abdomen, drinking a lot of water and/or urinating a lot, and discolored and foul vaginal discharge. The litter may fail to thrive, the mother may show signs of poor mothering skills and poor or decreased appetite. This again requires immediate veterinary attention.
As you can see, pregnancy and breeding comes with a host of complications that, if not monitored closely and carefully, can lead to life-threatening situations for your pet. On top of the massive over population of unwanted dogs and cats abandoned annually, the chronic veterinary shortage and the sad reality of euthanasias in shelters and private practice due to inbreeding are significant reasons why the veterinary community as a whole has a strong recommendation for spaying and neutering of pets. As much as we all love puppies and kittens, it comes with a lot of unnecessary suffering for both the mothers and the litter, not to mention the pet parents themselves.
If you have questions about pregnancy in dogs and cats, the Vet Pros at Pawp are here to help 24/7.